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AI & Journalism: publishers brace for a new wave of disruption

A spate of layoffs and profit warnings in recent months has set the tone for what publishers expect will be another bruising year for the industry, writes Nic Newman.

By Nic Newman

AI & Journalism: publishers brace for a new wave of disruption

In our annual survey of digital leaders for our Reuters Institute Trends Report, less than half (47%) of around 300 editors, CEOs and other executives from more than 50 countries say they are confident about journalism’s prospects, after a tough period for online advertising, slower subscription growth, and rapidly declining referrals from social media.

Clouding the outlook further is expected disruption from AI technologies, which many see as an existential threat to the business and practice of journalism. The implications for the reliability of information, and the sustainability of the mainstream media are likely to be profound in a year that sees critical elections due in more than 40 democracies including the United States and United Kingdom.

Platform shifts and the end of mass referral

Evidence that Facebook has been deprioritising news has been mounting over the last year. Parent company Meta has been trying to counter the threat of TikTok, increasingly preferring to incentivise creators, rather than publishers. Meanwhile the turmoil at X (formerly Twitter), which included the removal of headlines from publisher posts, has sharply diminished its value as a source of intelligence and traffic. Data from the analytics company, Chartbeat, sourced for our report, shows the impact of these changes with aggregate Facebook traffic to news and media properties declining by 48% during 2023 with traffic from X down 27% and Instagram by 10%.

Number of referrals in millions to news and media websites in the Chartbeat network. Source: Data analytics company Chartbeat using aggregated data from over 1000 news and media websites with a high proportion from the United States and Europe.

Now many fear that search traffic will be next, as Google, Microsoft and others roll out AI driven chat-based interfaces, that have been trained on publisher content – mostly, or so the publisher of the New York Times alleges, without their permission.

At the same time, we are seeing a proliferation of conversational AI assistants built into computers, mobile phones and even cars that will change the way we discover and consume content of all types. Queries about the news are increasingly answered directly by the AI interface itself while links to publisher websites disappear into the background. “AI disruption is going to increase business model problems,” warns Chani Guyot, publisher of RED/ACCIÓN in Argentina. “Search Generative Experience [SGE] is going to replace some of the media outlets’ functions.”

In this context, it is not surprising to find that publishers such as AP and Axel Springer have already done deals with AI companies, while the New York Times is taking legal action. Many publishers hope that this time round, the outcome will benefit publishers of original and high-quality news and information. “There is an opportunity for the industry to work with AI players to design a symbiotic ecosystem and that’s an opportunity we must not squander,” says the COO of a leading UK news provider who wishes to remain anonymous.

Given recent experience, most news executives, however, have little confidence that this new phase of negotiations will work out well. More than a third (35%) of survey respondents felt that only big media companies would benefit while around half (48%) predicted that, at the end of the day, there would little money for any publisher.

Many fear that these platform shifts could have major consequences for news organisations that have previously relied on high volume page views and advertising revenue. Even reach focused news organisations such as Mail Online and CNN have started to talk about reader payment models this year. Meanwhile, the majority (80%) of survey respondents said subscription or membership would be their most important online revenue source this year, ahead of display advertising, sponsorship, events and affiliate marketing.

Rethinking business and content strategies

Concerns about unreliable platform traffic is leading the majority of publishers (77%) to refocus their online strategies towards building direct links with consumers, through websites, apps, newsletters and podcasts. That is easier said than done, however, and cost cutting (22%) will also be a big part of the story. Around a fifth (17%) plan to spend more on marketing to help keep their brands in the public eye; others will explore alternative platforms (20%).

Publisher responses to the loss of platform traffic. Q6. What strategies is your company thinking about most in the light of decline in these referrals and potential loss of revenue / reach? Select all that apply. Base = 300.

“[We] will prioritise our resources on our own channels,” says Gard Steiro, editor in chief at Norwegian tabloid Verdens Gang (VG), though he also recognises that a different approach might be needed to reach younger audiences: “We are particularly focused on maintaining our strong position on Snapchat and building a loyal audience on TikTok.”

Putting more efforts into video platforms TikTok and YouTube remains a major focus for many news organisations this year – despite a continued poor outlook for monetisation. Beyond that, publishers are looking again at WhatsApp, which has launched branded channels for news. LinkedIn is also driving more referral traffic, as it starts to fill in some of the gaps around real-time professional content vacated by Twitter/X.

Our research also shows that news organisations plan to create more newsletters and more podcasts this year. Data shows that these are amongst the best ways to improve loyalty whilst publishers like the Economist have started to charge for the vast majority of its podcast programming. We can expect to see more paid and premium podcasts and newsletters this year, with some North European publishers bundling these with text-based subscriptions to improve retention and reduce churn.

AI in the newsroom

While the risks around business models and platforms need to be closely managed, publishers know there are significant opportunities to make their newsrooms more efficient. In our survey, we find the majority of publishers (56%) focusing on back-end automation this year, using AI to help with copyediting, metadata creation and translation, followed by better ways to recommend content (37%).

Which newsroom uses of AI will be most important in 2024? Q11. To what extent will the following uses of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Generative AI be important to your company in 2024? Base: 296.

“The most compelling user case for AI in newsrooms is in the automation of routine tasks,” argues Ed Roussel, head of digital at The Times and Sunday Times. “We do not believe that AI is a substitute for reporting stories, which will continue to be done by journalists.”

This focus on back-end automation is partly because news executives recognise the reputational risks in using AI for content, after early experiments by CNET and Sports Illustrated, amongst others, were found to be riddled with mistakes or inadequately labelled. But it hasn’t stopped others pushing ahead. Nordic publishers are routinely adding AI written summaries to their stories, while one German newspaper uses an AI robot to write 5% of its articles, albeit with human oversight. NewsGPT is the world’s first 24-hour TV news station created entirely by AI and, due to launch this year, promises a personalised news channel that can speak in any language.

Most traditional publishers remain extremely wary about using AI for creating content because of concerns that this could undermine trust and willingness to pay for news. By contrast, challenger brands, news start-ups, tech companies, politically minded disrupters, and ordinary people will continue to push the envelope. More than two-thirds (70%) of publisher respondents think that the widespread availability of generative AI, could reduce trust in the news, in a year that sees elections in some of the world’s biggest democracies.

“The explosion of crap content definitely has the potential to shake the trust,” says Christoph Zimmer, CPO, Der Spiegel, highlighting concerns about the use of deep fakes and other synthetic media, even as he also hopes that this could also “allow [trusted] news media to differentiate ourselves more clearly”.

Rethinking role and purpose of journalism

Rapid developments in AI are disrupting many industries, not just journalism but news executives know that can’t just put their heads in the sand. Rather than using AI to create greater volume of content, forward-thinking news organisations should be looking to build unique content and experiences that can’t be easily replicated by AI. This might involve curating live news, deeper specialist analysis, and more human experiences that build connection. But they’ll also need to use AI technologies to make their businesses more efficient, as well as more relevant for audiences, in an era when many are turning away from the news.

The impact of AI on the wider platform environment is harder to predict. Much will depend on emerging public attitudes to the technology but also on how responsibly the platforms themselves behave. Equally important will be the outcome of legal cases around intellectual property which could open up – or severely restrict – the way news content can be used for training AI models without proper compensation. We’re still at the early stages of the AI revolution but this is a year in which many of the rules and approaches are likely to be set. Against that background, journalists and news organisations will need to proactively rethink their role and purpose with some urgency.

You can read the full report on Journalism, Media and Technology trends including details of the survey methodology here.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.